Health­care­time­bombs in our back­yar ds

New Straits Times - - Higher Ed -

in­creased sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to the dis­ease or even pos­si­bly that di­a­betes it­self may act as a trig­ger for a la­tent in­fec­tion to flare up. M elioi­do­sis is in­creas­ingly be­ing recog­nised as an in­fec­tious dis­ease of global im­por­tance. The dou­ble bur­den of di­a­betes with bac­te­rial in­fec­tions, such as me­lioi­do­sis and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant global chal­lenge.

W ith di­a­betes af­fect­ing an in­creas­ing num­ber of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, the com­pound­ing ef­fect of co-mor­bid­ity with a bac­te­rial epi­demic or even pan­demic has the po­ten­tial to ex­plode into a pub­lic health night­mare.

In a way, the state of ne­glect for me­lioi­do­sis has par­al­lels to our ne­glect of the Zika virus. W e have only re­cently heard of the Zika virus be­cause it did not seem to af­fect us di­rectly be­fore. M islead­ing re­port­ing and head­lines give the im­pres­sion that Zika is a new dis­ease. In re­al­ity, the Zika virus had been dis­cov­ered decades ago and is known to be present even in M alaysia. Un­for­tu­nately, like many things that we hu­mans fo­cus on, we pri­ori­tise our af­fairs into mat­ters that af­fect us di­rectly, and af­ter that comes the more in­di­rect prob­lems. Zika didn’t seem to be caus­ing any prob­lems other than an an­noy­ing fever. W e didn’t even bother to test for it pre­vi­ously — so like fevers caused by other viruses that we con­sider not worthy of men­tion­ing, we had just lumped it into the “vi­ral fever” cat­e­gory. But more re­cent events have at­tracted our at­ten­tion — this dis­ease was start­ing to be a prob­lem.

The ques­tion is — had it al­ways been so and we sim­ply did not no­tice it, or did the virus evolve the ca­pac­ity to cause more se­ri­ous dam­age to hu­mans? The point that I am try­ing to make is sim­ple — we need to take proac­tive measures and learn from the past to plan for the fu­ture.

I started off with me­lioi­do­sis be­cause like Zika, many of us may have never heard of it un­til it is per­haps too late. How­ever, dis­eases like me­lioi­do­sis are largely ig­nored be­cause they are not yet prob­lems, not big enough yet any­way. W hat is the cut-off point for us to start re­act­ing? Ten lives? A hun­dred? Or should the toll reach an even thou­sand first? W e can do much bet­ter than sim­ply re­act­ing to epi­demics in panic. W e should be ready to meet such chal­lenges head on. This can only be achieved through in­ten­si­fied re­search into such dis­eases.

Pre­vi­ous out­breaks, such as SARS, M ERS, Ebola and Zika man­aged to es­cape lo­cal con­tain­ment and spread glob­ally, have shown how un­pre­pared the world health care sys­tem and in­fra­struc­ture is when it comes to re­spond­ing to in­fec­tious dis­ease out­breaks. Ear­lier this year, Bill Gates, the bil­lion­aire co-founder of M icrosoft, an­nounced the launch of the Coali­tion for Epi­demic Pre­pared­ness In­no­va­tions at the W orld Eco­nomic Fo­rum in Davos, Switzer­land. This multi­na­tional gov­ern­ment-backed coali­tion’s mis­sion is to fi­nance re­search ef­forts aimed at prevent­ing fu­ture epi­demics for known and even yet un­known dis­eases. As a na­tion that can be greatly af­fected and is in the direct fir­ing line of many in­fec­tious dis­ease out­breaks, we should take steps to par­tic­i­pate in such ini­tia­tives.

M elioi­do­sis and other such rare or ne­glected in­fec­tious dis­eases that are in our back­yards is our prob­lem first and now. The me­lioi­do­sis bac­te­ria was ac­tu­ally first iden­ti­fied in Kuala Lumpur. It is one area that we can lead the world in and be the so­lu­tions providers to a po­ten­tial global prob­lem. So for those health care time bombs in our back­yards, do we re­act to the car­nage or should we start work­ing to defuse them?

The writer is a bioin­for­mati­cian and molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist with the Fac­ulty of Science and Tech­nol­ogy and a Se­nior Re­search Fel­low at the In­sti­tute of Sys­tems Bi­ol­ogy, Univer­siti Ke­bangsaan M alaysia. Email him at fir­daus@ mfr­lab.org

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